The pink and purple balloons attached with duct tape were a dead give-away that the young father had made the poster himself. “Welcome to summer vacation with Daddy, baby girl!”
As I and hundreds of others got off a long flight and made our way down the busy corridor of Salt Lake City International Airport, many of us noticed the sign, smiled and pointed it out to the others. The “WELCOME” at the top was big and bold, but the letters got smaller and smaller to ensure that all the words would fit on the poster before he ran out of space. As I hurried on my way to the airport baggage claim, I smiled and thought, “Oh, how awesome!”
I was grateful to be home from a long speaking engagement trip, yet something prompted me to stop, turn around and go back. I knew all too well that this, for better or for worse would be a moment in time worth watching, and perhaps I might even capture it on a cell phone camera. This father-daughter reunion scene was one that I did not want to miss.
So, I returned to the gate to find the father alone, anxiously awaiting the arrival of his daughter. I stood out of the way, but nearby to watch. The young man, casually dressed seemed out of his element with the hustle and bustle of the busy airport. He held the airport security’s ‘responsible party’ paper in one hand and the poster in the other. He bobbed and swayed around the people, anxious and emotional, to get the first glimpse of his daughter.
As I watched quietly, my mind was flooded with feelings and memories from my own childhood. Throughout my growing up years, my parents were married and divorced several times, both to each other and to other people. I know this life and I know it well.
I recalled the many times when my younger brother and I flew from Los Angeles to San Diego for a weekend visit with our dad. We even earned our “golden wing” pins from American Airlines and got to take pictures with the Captain. That was fun, but I also recalled times of fearful confusion. Once, my mother put us on a plane to Salt Lake City to send us to grandma’s house only to have my father arrive 3 days later and fly us back to L.A., this time with a restraining order.
Hard times for all to be sure. There were many challenging changes, new towns, new schools, and new friends—with several awkward moments. Like when it was time to meet Mom’s boyfriend, or Dad’s girlfriend. There were many hours wondering if our parents would ever get back together; wondering if we would ever be a family again. Or would we learn to make the best of this broken home, spending ‘quality’ time at Mom’s house – then Dad’s as the state of California deemed appropriate.
These thoughts raced back to my mind and heart as I watched and waited for this father-daughter reunion. I found myself wondering how old would she be. Would this be her first visit with Dad? Would she be a little girl accompanied by an airline attendant who had just given her a golden wing pin? Or would she be a bit older? A teenager, perhaps? Would she be excited to see her dad, or upset about being forced to spend summers with Dad as the court had ordered?
I pondered as I waited a few feet from the father. The thought came to me that this ‘moment,’ whatever it might turn out to be, would be one worth witnessing.
Passenger after passenger de-boarded and I could see the anxiety building in the father as he paced back and forth, standing on tiptoes to see around and over people as far down the gangway he could. Still, no one. No sign of the father’s precious cargo.
That mother had better have put her on this plane, I thought, recalling experiences of my childhood. Please, I prayed, for that young father’s sake, please let her be next.
After what looked like the very last adult passenger, the airline security people came through the door, leading several children. Yes! I thought, she will be in this group for sure. I watched as one by one, IDs were verified and the kids were connected with their respective adult. The excitement was so profound that I found myself holding my breath in anticipation. Finally, the look of anxiety on this father’s face softened, his eyes filled with tears of joy and love, as he beheld his “baby girl.”
Which one is she? I wondered. Then it became obvious. She was about 12 years old, tall and thin, with straight blonde hair and looked a bit like her dad. Tears flowed freely as they embraced and held on tightly to each other. How grateful I was to witness this beautiful moment. As they began to walk together, the father saw that I was ready to take a picture of them. He paused and motioned to his daughter to look at me. I knew instinctively what she was thinking. Who are you? Are you the new girlfriend?
I shook my head and said, “I am no one. I do not know you or your father. His sign caught my attention and it was just so awesome that I knew this would be a special moment and that perhaps I could capture it for you.”
She smiled and I took a few photos and asked for his email address.. They each thanked me for my time and walked arm in arm to begin their summer visit.
I stood there, so grateful for the experience, for the prompting I received to stop my crazy-busy life for just a second and embrace a moment that mattered. My heart was full, and my life was enriched by this experience. All it cost me was a few minutes of my time. I could have so easily missed it.
The speed of life these days is one of our greatest challenges. The world often seems spinning out of control. Information flies faster and faster, requiring our constant response to keep up. Faster and faster we go, sometimes unaware of why we are hurrying and missing so much along the way.
In a favorite scene in the Star Trek Movie “Insurrection,” a woman friend of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Anij appears to slow down time. A waterfall becomes a magical display of beauty, a hummingbird’s wings flap so slowly one can count the beats, and pollen blown from a flower floats softly in mid-air for the longest time. What an inspiring scene depicting what life would be like if we could control time. Of course, we can’t. We can however, control ourselves, the speed in which we live our lives, and what we choose to do with our time.
I agree with these words from Mormon Apostle, Dieter F. Uchtdorf. “One of the characteristics of modern life seems to be that we are moving at an ever-increasing rate, regardless of turbulence or obstacles. Let’s be honest; it’s rather easy to be busy. We all can think up a list of tasks that will overwhelm our schedules. Some might even think that their self-worth depends on the length of their to-do list.
“The wise resist the temptation to get caught up in the frantic rush of everyday life. They follow the advice from Mahatma Gandhi. ‘There is more to life than increasing its speed.’ In short, they focus on the things that matter most.”
Many of life’s meaningful moments are so easily missed in the crazy-busy of our daily routines. It is helpful to recognize that we are ultimately in control. We are the creators of this “chaos.” We have both the responsibility and opportunity to choose what we do with our time. The great thing is each of us gets to decide how often we choose to truly experience and embrace the moments that matter.
* * *
Five years following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, I had the privilege of speaking at a conference in New Orleans. There were many new buildings, streets, and parks with a stronger, more united, and very grateful city—much more so that when I had visited many years before. Early one evening a friend and I walked through the old town and decided to stroll down a new walking trail along the Mississippi River. There were many quaint little shops, restaurants, and street vendors.
Between the sidewalk and the river was a patch of new green grass, cool and comfortable. The couple who occupied this spot seemed an unlikely pair. She was a bit older, with straggly grey hair, a dirty dress, and no shoes. She lay on the grass without speaking to anyone at all. The man, on the other hand, had on a nice button-down shirt, though a bit wrinkled, blue jeans and sandals. He sat on one of three overturned plastic buckets and with two beat-up drumsticks, drummed on the two other buckets. He’s actually pretty good, I thought as I passed by.
My husband is a drummer and I felt it was only fitting that I put a dollar or two in the pie tin, which he had strategically placed on the sidewalk. The man stopped, and with his toothless smile said, “God bless you, ma’am.” I smiled back, nodding, and kept walking.
Much to my surprise he stood and shouted, “Wait! Thank you ma’am. Please come back. Come back, I have something for you.”
A little frightened, I wasn’t sure what to do. I stopped. We needed to get back to our hotel, we didn’t really have the time, and they were both a bit scary. But I called to my friend who had walked on and motioned for her to follow me. We turned around and went back.
The man smiled. “Thank you. God bless you.”
I asked to hear his story.
He shared his plight. “My wife and I,” he pointed to the woman sprawled out on the lawn, “lost everything in Katrina. Friends, family, our home, all of our possessions, and our livelihood. We migrated north for a few years and tried to make enough money to come home. We are now so blessed to be back. We are grateful for the mattress on the floor provided by a local church mission. It isn’t much, but it is a start. We love this city and we are looking forward to rebuilding our lives here. To thank you for your generous tip, I would like to give you something just from me. I do not sing very well, but I will do my best.” He rearranged his drums, picked up his drumsticks, took a deep breath and began to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It doesn’t get more real, more authentic than this. A seasoned gospel choir could not have done a better job!
On the banks of the Mississippi River, this grateful man sang with heart and soul. It was both inspiring and humbling. It was a moment that mattered to me and to him, and we embraced it. It is a memory I will forever hold dear. This was one of those moments that Maya Angelou was talking about when she said, “Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away.” To think what I might have missed had I not stopped my crazy-busy life for just a moment to listen to his story, hear his song, and connect in such a powerful way.
As I have reflected back on this experience, I wonder if I should have snapped a quick selfie with him, or tweeted #homeless #Katrina #survivor. Maybe I should have recorded a video for YouTube, blogged the experience, or posted it on Facebook. I could have even created a “GoFundMe” page for him. At the very least, I could have sent an email or text to my colleagues who were attending the same conference to come and hear him play. I did none of those things.
What I have recognized since is that any one of these things would have detracted from that very special moment in time. I would have been worried about how I might look in the picture. Was the lighting right? Would the video sound be okay? Would it go viral? Would I misspell something in my blog or would my text interrupt friends? Instead, I chose to simply live life and be fully present in the moment. To relish the connection, to really soak it in and to wholeheartedly embrace a moment that mattered. I am so grateful that I did.
* * *
She had heard me speak once before and although I do not recall our first meeting, I will always remember our second. Before my presentation, one of the conference organizers approached me to let me know that there was someone in the audience who wanted to talk with me. I told her I would be more than happy to chat with the audience member. That was of course, after X, Y, Z. I wondered who this audience member was, what she wanted, and why she had the conference planner ask permission.
As the event drew to a close, I noticed a lady hovering in the hallway near my book-signing table. Though with some trepidation, I was looking forward to talking with her.
The crowed thinned and she came forward to introduce herself. “I know that you probably don’t remember me, but I heard you speak three years ago at a similar event.”
“Oh yes?” I said. “It was a great conference, wasn’t it?” That is all I could think of to say. I remembered the event, but really did not remember meeting her.
She continued. “At that time, my life was in chaos. I had suffered several painful losses. I was unwell, depressed, discouraged and to be totally truthful,” she paused for a moment and choked back the tears, “I had planned all of the details and was prepared to take my own life later that night. I don’t know what prompted me to go to this meeting, I was not feeling up to it, but I went anyway. While I enjoyed your speech, it wasn’t what you said on stage that had such a profound, life-changing effect on me. It was what you did afterwards that made all the difference. There were a lot of people around and much to my surprise, you approached me and said, ‘You seem distraught; are you okay?’ Though I had said nothing to you about what was happening in my life, somehow, you sensed my grief. I responded with very little about what was really going on, but you were kind enough to take time to talk to me. You even gave me a copy of your book, one that I could not afford for myself. I know now you were a God-send. It was clear to me that someone did care and that perhaps I would be all right. I am here tonight just to thank you for the time you spent with me, for your encouraging words, and for the hope you re-instilled in me. It was that moment that changed the course of my life.”
As professional speakers, we understand what a privilege it is to have people’s attention. We have the remarkable opportunity to motivate, inspire, and encourage people. Sometimes our words become a catalyst for positive life-changing decisions. But the lesson I learned from this dear lady was that she was not moved by my platform skills, my entertaining presentation, or my book, but rather by my willingness to offer a few moments of my time to connect with and care about her personally. Richard Moss said, “The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention.”
Time and time again, we learn that the most memorable experiences of life come when we are willing to slow it down, take time to truly connect, to love, and to serve others. I am grateful for these opportunities. My hope and my challenge to you is that you will choose to slow down from time to time and embrace the moments that matter.